Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.
Having discussed the truth of the preservation of the saints, we now turn to the perseverance of the saints. Preservation and perseverance—two very similar words and two words that go hand-in-hand. While our assurance rests in God who preserves us to the end, the way in which God preserves us is the way of our persevering in the faith.
God preserves, we persevere. God keeps us in the palm of His hand, we continue in the way of salvation. God guides us by His counsel, we walk the pathway to everlasting glory.
God calls us to persevere in the faith. Our Canons speak of persevering “in a state of grace.” On the one hand, that state of grace is the state of being delivered from God’s wrath and brought under His fatherly love and grace. But on the other hand, in that state of grace the believer experiences the Spirit of God and the fruits of the Spirit in his heart. To persevere in that state of grace, therefore, means that the believer continues steadfast in faith, in repentance, in love, in hope, in joy—in all the benefits of the gracious salvation God has worked in him.
In his brief inspired epistle, Jude says (Jude 1:20-21): “But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”
The apostle Peter points us to the fierce attacks of our adversary, the devil, saying, “Whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world” (I Pet. 5:9).
The Lord Christ, speaking to the church at Smyrna (Rev. 2:10), says, “Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”
So also we read in I Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.”
We might say, in fact, that all the admonitions set before us in Scripture are so many calls to persevere in the faith. And “he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matt. 24:13).
We do well to remember, however, that these very admonitions are the means that God uses powerfully to accomplish His work. Through the almighty, calling word of His power, God, by His Holy Spirit, moves us to perseverance, so that we actively enter into that work.
Our perseverance, therefore, is not a work independent from or even in distinction from God’s work. It is not a matter of finally coming to what we can do for God. Our perseverance is the fruit of God’s preserving work. We persevere, working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12, 13).
The Great Struggle
Perseverance is a truth that emphasizes the struggle, the battle of the Christian life. The very word persevere presupposes difficulty. It is to continue walking a certain pathway even in the face of difficulty and opposition.
The Christian life is no game. The Christian life is not a life of ease. We have unspeakable joy, yes indeed. But our joy is mingled with sorrow. We enjoy the peace that passes all understanding. But the peace that we have is a peace in the midst of warfare. The victory is ours in Christ Jesus, to be sure. But it is a victory only through conflict, and the final experience of that victory awaits the peace of heavenly glory.
So we are left no alternative but to join the fight of faith. A neutral bystander there is not. The true church of Jesus Christ consists not of dead firewood, but of living members who bear the flame of the gospel torch, their lights shining to the glory of God, even according to the gifts of the Holy Spirit that God has given them.
Perseverance is running the race, fighting the fight, guarding against the enemy. We must not be surprised, therefore, when our life seems filled with obstacles and when we are troubled by opposition, when we bear affliction, and even suffering for Christ’s sake. In fact, the greatest battle is with our own sinful flesh (see Romans 7). But run the race we do. We fight the fight. And we endure unto the end. That is the doctrine of perseverance. In dependence upon our faithful heavenly Father, we persevere.
The Arminians, and all those who join them in rejecting this doctrine, argue that this doctrine is “a cause of indolence and is injurious to godliness, good morals, prayers, and other holy exercises” (Canons of Dordt, Fifth Head, Rejection of Errors, Article 6). They insist that this doctrine of the certain perseverance of the saints encourages carelessness and destroys the motives for godliness.
But there is a reason why we use the expression “perseverance of saints.”
God’s people are made saints, holy ones. As certain as is the perseverance of the saints, so certain it is that without holiness no man shall see the Lord (Heb. 12:14)!
The Canons of Dordt, in rejecting the error just mentioned, point us to I John 3:2-3, where the apostle John writes, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.”
The way of salvation is the way of holiness. Those who would lay claim to the doctrine of preservation, while saying, “It really doesn’t matter how you live,” show not only that they do not understand the doctrine of preservation and perseverance, but also that they do not understand the Christian life!
It is impossible that one who has been purchased by Christ’s blood, made one with Him, should continue in the service of sin. That is the plain instruction of Romans 6.
“For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin” (Rom. 6:5-7).
So the truth of the perseverance of the saints guarantees not only that we shall be delivered, but that we are delivered!
What about our sin, then? When our Canons of Dordt introduce the subject “Of the Perseverance of the Saints,” they do so by defining saints as those whom God has called to the communion of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and whom He has also delivered from the dominion and slavery of sin in this life (Canons V, Article 1). But they also point out that being a saint does not mean that one is altogether freed from sin.
Though we are saints, we are not yet delivered from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh. We still have our old sinful nature, that old man with which we constantly do battle. That is why our perseverance depends upon God’s preservation of us.
Far from causing us to be complacent, our calling to persevere and our consciousness of our daily sins and the spots that adhere to the best of our works furnish us “with constant matter for humiliation before God, and flying for refuge to Christ crucified; for mortifying the flesh more and more by the spirit of prayer, and by holy exercises of piety; and for pressing forward to the goal of perfection, till being at length delivered from this body of death, (we) are brought to reign with the Lamb of God in heaven” (Canons V, Article 2).
By reason of these remains of indwelling sin, and the temptations of sin and of the world, those who are converted could not persevere in a state of grace if left to their own strength. But God is faithful, who having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end (Canons V, Article 3).
It is in fact to teach us our complete dependence and reliance upon Him, that God sometimes allows us to fall into sin. If left to our own strength, we cannot stand a moment. And sometimes our falls can be grievous and hard falls. The Bible gives us many examples, as does our own experience. Nevertheless, God continues to preserve us, so that we also persevere.
For in the first place, in these falls He preserves in them the incorruptible seed of regeneration from perishing or being totally lost; and again, by His Word and Spirit, certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins, that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator, may again experience the favor of a reconciled God, through faith adore His mercies, and henceforward more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling (Canons V, Article 7).
And while there are those who fall away, fulfilling such passages as Hebrews 6:4-8, I Timothy 1:19-20, II Timothy 2:17-18, and II Peter 2:20-22, it is of such that the apostle John writes in I John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us: for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” The context of Hebrews 6, and particularly verse 8, speaks of them as bearing “thorns and briers.” Even for all their appearances, even the appearance of those who “were made partakers of the Holy Ghost,” they prove that they are not of the true seed. They are imposters, but weed seeds that bear thorns and briers, “whose end is to be burned.”
Those who are Christ’s, called saints, persevere. Being preserved by God, they persevere. In sorrow for their own sins, walking in the way of true repentance, they persevere. Laying hold of God’s Word, they persevere. Yes, God’s doctrine determines our walk of life. Our persevering is the crown and seal upon our doctrine. So we hold fast, that no one take our crown.
But the glory for our perseverance is God’s. For our salvation is all of Him. So we may be “confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).